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.:'~I :~. "'~~~'
Athenian Identity
and Civic Ideology
....... ;.0
Alan·L. Boegehold
<'(IW•..• , ,
Adele C. Scafuro
.. ~,"'i
... ~I·•• ,
; ,...
-t,~ ..,
: ;~~~-
The Johns Hopkins University Press
I attLl
... '
demonstrate that democracy is no better-indeed, perhaps much worse~ ,.l<~, ':~::
than other forms of government} This was not my intention, nor.g.~ I
believe that it is correct to draw the inference "hegemonic discourse" '~"
makes for bad politics" from the historical Athenian experienc~' with ,. ..'
democracy. One ",vay to challenge the validity of such a position is~ to-'
investigate the form and substance of political criticism written under the.. .
democratic regime. The limits of hegemonic political discourse can' be
defined by the ability and willingness of a society's members openly, to:
--challenge the central premises of civic ideology. Moreover, I believe that.. ' ,~
reading classical Athenian texts against the context of ideological hege-' . "Ii··...;,.......
mony can deepen our appreciation of the achievemel)t of the texts them······ "
selves and can further our understanding of the relationship between'
criticism as expressed in literature and acts of political resistance.
A contextual reading of the sort I am proposing requires a brief '~"'" ~.
description of what is meant by ideology, hegemony, resistance, and dis- .. ' ., ~.,.~'
course." Athenian political ideology was formulated through, maintained~..".
by, and revealed by public speech, especially the formal rhetoric of As~="
sembly and law-court debates. This ideology held (inter alia) that (I)<"~'
political equality was both fundamentally important and compatible~·.
with social inequality, (2.) consensus among citizens and liberty of citizens ~.
(esp. freedom of public speech) were simultaneously desirable. (3) coUec- .'
tive decisions of the citizenry were inhefently wise, and (4) educated.and
wealthy individuals were both. a threat to democracy and indispensable...
agents in furthering the political process that permitted public~policy
decisions to be made and implemented. Athens' cohesiye, if internally
contradictory, civic ideology mediated between the reaiity of social in;'
equality and the goal of political equality, and so it helped to diffuse the
class tensions that elsewhere in Greece led to bloody staseis. s
Athenian civic ideology was founded neither on a formal constitu-tion nor on a set of epistemological certainties, but rather on a socially,
and politically constructed truth regime that I call ~democratic knowl·
edge/' The practical functioning of democratic knowledge depended on
the implicit willingness of the citizen-participants to accept the truths
they lived by as political artifacts, rather· than as absolutes denoted by a
--", ...., ..
transcendent natural order. Democratic knowledge was grounded, in the
language of J. L. Austin's speech-act theory, in the "conventional effects'~:
of conventional procedures," rather than in objective reality. It was ere-:;' ~
ated and re-created through the collective processes of public disc\Jssion;~.·.. ~··
rather than being given from above by a metaphysical authority or dis-""'·'· '"
covered through intellectual efforts. 6
Athenian political culture was thus based explicitly on opinion rather
than on scientific certainty-in Platonic terms, on doxa rather than on
.. '
Civic Ideology and
Counterhegemonic Discourse:
Thucydides on the Sicilian Debate
For a number of scholars (myself included), the subjects of Athenian
citizenship and political identi,ty seem to lead almost inevitably to an
investigation of civic ideology. And, as this volume itself demonstrates,
civic ideology is a deeply fascinating, if sOlnetinlCS disquieting subject. I
have argued elsewhere that in fifth- and fourth-century Athens the political identity of the citizen was enunciated in a civic ideology that was in
turn defined by public discourse. This discourse was hegemonic and thus
was the source of genuine p'olitical power for the ordinary citizens. 1 But
civic identity and ideology are only one half of the equation. As several
critical discussions of the work of Michel Foucault have shown, the study
of discourse-as-power draws attention to the equally problematic issue of
discourse-as-resistance. 2
Civic ideology thus points to its own dialogical opposite: counterideology and critical discourse. With these considerations in mind, I offer
here a preliminary reading of how a familiar text, Thucydides' History
of the Peloponnesian War, resists the hegemonic tendencies of Athens'
democratic civic ideology and criticizes the apparatuses through which
that ideology was formulated and maintained. In brief, I hope to show
that if Athenian civic ideology constructed the identity of the citizen by
promulgating a specifically democratic way of learning about and acting
in the public realm, then Thucydides' history offered its reader a technique for constructing an oppositional identity through mastery of a very
different, although equally political, sort of knowledge.
The investigation of counterideologies seems particularly important
because (among other reasons) the argument I have nlade for linking
democracy and ideological hegemony might be mistaken as an attempt to
10 3
• 4
/IIIif'." r·~ ...
episteme. The enactment formula of the Assembly, edoxe toi demoi, "it
appeared right to the citizenry," defines the relationship between democratic knowledge and political action. The Athenian sociopolitical order
was relatively stable because popular ideology provided a basis for collective decision-making. On the other hand, democratic knowledge remained flexible and dialectical because the frequent meetings of Assembly and People's Courts allowed contrasting views to be publicly aired.
Through the process of open debate, public meanings evolved in response
to changing external circumstances.
By responding to elite speakers in the Assembly and courtroom, the
Athenian citizenry controlled the language employed in political deliberations. The resulting hegemony of the discourse of ordinary citizens was
the real foundation of Athens' political order: Athens was a democracy
because the ordinary citizen was a participant in maintaining a value
system that constituted him as the political equal of his· elite neighbor.
This was a boon for the Athenian citizen masses, but a problem for some
elite citizens, who saw enforced equality as oppression. Because revolutionary activism was discredited by the deplorable conduct of the ephcnleral oligarchic governments of 411 and 404, the most visible (to us) resistance to civic ideology in late fifth- and fourth-century Athens was the
creation of a literature critical of the failings of democratic knowledge.
Because the educated elites of Athens were subject to, and searched for
ways to resist, the hegemony of popular civic ideology, classical Athens
generated many texts that struggled against the operations of what Foucault called the regime of truth. 7
Thucydides begins his text by stating that he began his work right at
the beginning of the war because at the time he believed (elpisas) that it
would be great and worthy of record and because he saw (horon) that the
rest of the Greek world was either allied to, or inclining toward, one siqe
or the other (1.1.1).8 The text, its subject, and the author's work have in
this opening sentence a common point of origin, and from the very' start
Thucydides hints that there is simultaneously a connection and a distinction between inference (what he believed) and observation (what he saw).
He was correct in his initial prediction, as we are told in the next sentence: the disturbance (kinesis). caused by the war engulfed almost the
whole of mankind (1.1.2). The only emendation of Thucydides' original
(prewar) assessment suggested by his second (explicitly postwar) sentence
is that the conflict involved barbarians as well as Greeks.
In these opening sentences, the reader is alerted to the greatness of
the events, the perspicacity of the historian, and the importance of the
text. Thucydides foresaw great events, accurately assessed their importance, and studied them as they happened. Our author is no mere chron10
icier of past facts, but is possessed of a mantic gift for seeing the g~neral
direction of future developments. Having established his bona {ides, Thu- '
cydides underlines the significance of the events he has recorded, by' com~
paring the Peloponnesian War with previous conflicts. Despite the lack of
fully reliable information about these early events, Thu~dides used inference and probability (ek tekmerion) to show his readers that the wars ,and
other affairs of the past were really not very great after all (1.1.3). .
Having run through a brief precis of the more distant Greek past;
: Thucydides returns to the issue of the reliability of hi,storical knowledge, ..Mr
launching (1.20.1) an attack on those who believe whatever they happe~ . :~"~·
to hear about the past, including..things about their own country, without
subjecting the accounts to rigorous testing (abasanistos). His case in point
is the belief, held by "the majority (to plethos) of the Athenians," that
Hipparkhos, who was killed by Harmodios and Aristogeiton, ha.d04bee~i7·' ..':~,
the tyrant of Athens. This is no casual example: many Athenians assumed ....· '
that the assassination of Hipparkhos set into motion the chain of ey~nts·':.,~
that led to the establishment of the democratic government. By sho~ing~;:" .,
that Hipparkhos was a minor figure, Thucydides undermines a founda··'
tion myth of the democracy and so robs popular rule of a "usable" aspect .,
of the polis' past history. The word Thucydides uses for the ignQrant
Athenians who supposed Hipparkhos to have been tyrant-to plethos- ,.. : .,
refers to the mass of ordinary citizens.l0 Thus, we are alerted to the text's'
critical project: it will present facts that have been "tested" and so are
more reliable than the hodgepodge of erroneous beliefs that constitute
democratic knowledge and underlie Athens' civic ideology.
Thucydides implies that the general (and specifically popular Athe•.;.
nian) unwillingness to test the truth is bad enough when it has to do with ..: .. "'.
the distant past. But he goes on to show that "the many" are equaHy.... ,...,.:/.
credulous when it comes to affairs unobscured by, the passage of time'-e"
Thucydides cites as examples two errors regarding Sparta.ll He then sums '
up: "Such is the degree of carelessness among hoi polloi in the search for
truth (aletheia) and their preference for ready-made accounts" (1.•20.3 ),12 ,... ' "::'.::'"
Having chastised the many for their ignorance and laziness in r~gar.g, ~~{~~~~
to truth, Thucydides ( proclaims the trustworthiness of his' own::' ~ .
history of the distant past: the reader will not go too far wrong in believr~' __
ing Thucydides' account, which is based on the clearest possibl~,sources;~ '*'
6f evidence (epiphanestaton semeion). His compressed history is, he says~M',","_ ;~ .
more reliable than the accounts of poets or logographoi. The former try ,.~..
to make the events of which they sing seem· greater than they aetually.~'·
were. The latter are more concerned with persuading listeners than with
hewing close to the truth. The events they relate are too distant in time to··..
be checked (anexelegkta) and, indeed, "have won their way into the realm".
.~~ ~."
of the fabulous" (epi to muthodes eknenikekota). This last phrase introduces the idea of a contest. Thucydides locates the quasi-historical accounts of poets and (other) writers of logoi in the context of a tournament of words; the victor's reward is public acclaim and the easy belief of
the gullible many.
Of course Thucydides himself has introduced a competition between
the "greatness" of the Peloponnesian War and all previous events. But he
informs us that this contest will not be judged by popular acclaim. Although ( it is human nature (kaiper ton anthropon) for men to
overrate the war they are engaged in while they are fighting it, and then to
fall back into na'ive wonderment at the glories of the distant past, this war
will demonstrate to anyone who is willing to pay attention to the actual
facts (ho polemos houtos ... ap' auton ton ergon skopousi delosei) that
it was the greatest of all. Here Thucydides introduces a conception that is
central to his critical project: the superior importance and the self-evident
significance for the interpreter of the past of what actually happened, of
the brute facts about what was really done (ta erga). It is the war that
demonstrates, by the (acts themselves, its own greatness. 13 The historian
has disappeared: historical truth is no longer a matter of words, of verbal
persuasion or interpretation, but a self-evident matter of seeing.
Facts (erga) occupy a privileged place in Thucydides' narrative in
relation to speech (logos). Words (especially those spoken in public by
politicians) and facts often collide in his text. As we shall see, individual
men and states (i.e., men acting collectively) who attempt to impose their
own speech-dependent meanings on brute facts come to bad ends. This
. pattern in the text is significant from the perspective of criticism of democracy. As Thucydides has explained, most Athenians believe silly
things about their own past and about the institutions of their opponents.
They came to believe these errors through listening to pleasing poetry and
equally pleasing speeches. 14 Assemblymen whose understanding of the
past and present derives only from poets and public speakers-whose aim
was not correspondence with "facts," but rather the pleasure and acclaim
of the audience-cannot possibly decide rightly in regard to the future. If
sustained by the empirical evidence of an objective historical narrative
(which Thucydides' text is often taken to be), this chain of reasoning
would be a devastating criticism of democracy.IS
Athenian Assembly speakers based their arguments on democratic
knowledge, which took for granted both a citizenry with a good grasp of
past and present political practices and the validity of public opinion. 16
When Thucydides removed facts from the realm of affairs that could
properly be understood through listening to public speakers, or by reference to examples drawn from the ordinary citizens' knowledge of the
distant past, or by surface appearance and collective opinion, he-also.
removed facts from the realm of things that could be adeq'uately understood (and hence dealt with) by the existing procedures of the Athenian
Assembly. Thucydides' version of historical knowledge is thus (accofding
to its own internal logic) shown to be incompatible with, and indeed
superior to, democratic knowledge.
Thucydides is not a simple sort of critic, and he recognized that the
, .--.
problem of perspective presented a challenge to his goal of understanding
'. and presenting to his readers the objective facts about the past.lZ. He
complicates the reading of facts as objective entities that can exist in a · .::':~::
pure realm beyond perspective:!'My investigation proved very laborious;;.,
.. '
because the witnesses to each of the things that actually happened (toisA
ergois) did not relate the same things about these things, but rather [each _ •. "";.:.
spoke] according to his individual preference (eunoia) for one side or the ':~
other, or according to individual memory" (1.2.2..3). In his prior discussion on how he treated speeches and events (1.2.2..1-2.), Thucydides had
established a hierarchical relationship between logoi and erga. There hestated that, while speeches neither could be nor need be reported exactly,
he subjected all reports of events (as well as his own perceptions) to the
most rigorous scrutiny. But here he reminds the reader that his own
knowledge of the facts about the war was largely a product of listening to
things others said about what had actually happened in the war-that is,
Thucydides' account of the erga is built up from logoi recounted by
multiple witnesses who had imposed their own ideological perspectives
on their narratives, and whose memories were imperfect.
We are now set for the grand revelation: Just how' did Thucydides
extract objective truth (aletheia) about the erga from multiperspectival 'logoi? The hoped-for revelation never comes. In its place we get a digression on the probable reception of Thucydides' text: "When people listen
to (kai es ... akroasin) my account, the very lack of fables (muthodes)
will probably make it appear rather unpleasant" (1.2.2..4). Here the word~' -.. .r,•....
ing draws an explicit contrast between Thucydides' history and the ac"~' __~"._.
counts of the logographoi, which were composed with an eye toward :"'" ,.
aural reception and which may win their way into the realm of fable. We:'
have now been warned: investigating the facts of the war was not easy, the
author does not intend to reveal the alchemical secret of extracting objective historical truth from subjective accounts, and we should not expect
to enjoy his narrative. Why should we (the members of his intended
audience) bother to 'read it? The answer comes in the next sentence: "But
as many as wish genuinely to understand (to saphes skopein) that which
happened in the past and that which will happen in the future-a future
which over time, in accordance with human nature (ka.ta to anthropi·
10 7
non), will be much the same as the past, or at least similar-if they judge
this account useful, that is quite enough [for me]. It is as a possession for
all time rather than as an entry into the contest (agonisma) for current
listening pleasure that I wrote" (1.22.4)·18
This is a heady claim: those who do the hard work of reading this
text will be rewarded with genuine understanding of both the past and
(in its general lines) the future. Thus, Thucydides' readers may hope to
achieve a position similar to that which the author claimed for himself in
the text's opening sentence: they will have learned how to recognize the
significance of great things in the offing. Confronted with the objective
account of great political events, they will come to an empirical understanding of complex phenomena that conspire to create future tendencies.19 The text's claim to teach an understanding of both past and future
demonstrates that, despite his initial statement that the war was "most
worthy of recording," Thucydides' account is hardly "history for its own
sake." It is intended as a thoroughly tested, trustworthy, useful, empirically derived critical theory of political power in the form of a precise
chronological prose narrative. This critical theory is in turn based on
specific understandings of power and hUlllan nature.
In the so-called "Archaeology," Thucydides uses examples from earlier phases of Greek society to show that power is both restless and
destructive. The reader concludes from these examples that once a. state
has become powerful it has orily two choices. Either it will extend its
power and thereby destroy the freedom of others, or the internal inequalities generated by undeployed power will lead to the self-destructive
trauma of stasis. 20 The conceptualization of power as unstable and destructive in its effects is significant for reading Thucydides as a critic of
popular rule. The two commonest terms for power in fifth-century Ath·
ens were dunamis (national financial or military strength relative to other
states) and kratos. For most ordinary Athenians, kratos, at least in the
, political context defined by demokratia, had the positive sense of "legiti::,. mate authority." The demos' kratos, the people's political power, was
~~; regarded as a natural political good. But in Thucydides' much darker
'~~ vision, kratos is the violent flip side of dunamis: either raw military
might, or the forceful measures by which control over others is gained. 21
wi, The Athenian demos was powerful because the common people were
t many and were well aware of their collective strength. If the kratos of the
: ~;.. demos is a sort of power, and power destroys freedom and produces civil
~~, strife, the implication must be that, for Thucydides, demokratia is the
... power of the demos to destroy the freedom of others and, unless controlled by some external force, demokratia will embody a tendency toward the horrors of stasis. This reading is strengthened by a considera·
tion of the other leg on which Thucydides' critical theory stands: his view
of human nature.
""". .
Thucydides assumes throughout that human beings will, by nature, ...,..act according to perceived self-interest. But this does not necessarily mean
narrowly selfish personal or individual interest.u He seems to regarg ,_
circumstances in"which each individual acts to further his narrow, per.,.
sonal interests as a pathological extreme. For example, despite their .....~._
power, the tyrants of archaic Greece never accomplished much of note'
:., ,.::
because each was interested only in his private household (idion oikon, ..,.. -".;;-;:
- 1.17). In plague-stricken Athens the ordinary bonds of family, community,.... ..,..
and friendship were shattered by a force beyond human ability to control·
or comprehend. Thucydides' description of the hedonistic behavior of ,.,;~ ,..,.,:
individual Athenians who had contracted the plague might be read as an
explanation of how human "nature" (phusis) asserted itself in a condi'~'...
tion free of the artificial bonds of social "custom" (nomos). But Thucydi-.
des claims that the effects of the plague were "beyond the capacity of
human nature (ten anthropeian phusin) to endure" (Z..SO.I). Thus, we are
to suppose that the plague overcame humanity and the behavior of the
plague-stricken went beyond the realm of acting according to human
nature. The plague narrative describes the ghastly end point of a continuum of behavior whose middle range is, for Thucydides, "human nature."
For Thucydides, the selves that naturally act to further their perceived
interests are collectivities: poleis or groups within the polis. 23 The stress
of horrible circumstances has the potential to fragment society so individuals act only to further individual self-interest, but life under those conditions is not truly "human."
The demotic Athenian view of human nature was probably not so . , . . different from that of Thucydides, but Athenian civic ideology tended to
-... .,..
put a great deal of emphasis on the Demos as a whole as the "seW' that
',1";.-rnaturally acted to further human interests. The Athenian political ideal
was for all of the citizens to decide and to act collectively in the interests .
of the polis as a whole. 24 In Athens the discontinuity between aetual~·'-'·· "
political actors (those who attended the Assembly, made proposals,
served as jurors, implemented decisions, etc.) and the corporate whole."~:;·:,,,,,
(hoi Athenaioi) was deeply concealed behind the elaborate ideological ,..,'~.:. .._.....,......
structure that was maintained in turn by the hegemonic language of gem.. '.•
ocratic politics. The functioning of the democracy was dependent, on
maintaining the illusion that the part of the citizen body that made policy_
in the Assembly stood in the place of the whole polis. For the Athenians,
the enactment of a decree in the Assembly represented the collective will
of the (imagined entity) Demos. Imagined Demos, identified with the j;
state, naturally (in Athenian ideology) acted in the interest of the state. 2S
,"~. ~~'~~.
.'f~~".L .
~t .
Thucydides' text attempts to expose this construct as a fragile political
myth by demonstrating the existence and function of much narrower
interests that were concealed by the language of Athenian politics. His
text suggests that under the stress of war the myth of Demos often broke
down and that, in light of the majoritarian decision-making mechanisms
of the democratic state, this had serious consequences: Athenian political
life after the death of Perikles is depicted as tending toward the selfish
extreme typified by poleis beset by tyrants or plague. Alternately, the
myth of unity was from time to time revived during the war, and Thucydides suggests that the consequences of this revival were, if anything, even
more destructive to the polis.
For an ordinary Athenian, the term demokratia meant something
like "the monopoly over legitimate public authority is held by the whole
ofthe citizenry." For Thucydides, the same term denoted something like
"the lower classes possess the raw power that gives them the means to
constrain the rest of us." Thucydides does sometimes use the term demos
to refer to the abstraction citizenry, but his primary use of the term is to
denote a large, sociologically defined, and self-interested political faction
within the state. Demos in this narrower sense means "the mass of the
poor" and is equated with to p/ethos and hoi po//oi. 26 If demos means
"the masses as an interest group or faction," then demokratia is reenvisioned as an unstable system likely to promote the spread of destructive,
narrowly defined self-interest, and this instability will unleash the great
destructive potential innate in the dunameis of both Athens and Sparta.
The only way around this reenvisioning is for two conditions to be met.
First, the demos of Athens must be not only "the many" imagining themselves as Demos but also "the many and the few united in fact." Second,
that unified demos must have an accurate understanding of the effect of
its present decisions and actions on the future. This second condition
requires that public decisions be grounded in objective facts. Thucydides
depicts the Athenian process of linking (or failing to link) facts with
speech in a number of passages of the History, notably in the Funeral
Oration scene, and the three debate scenes (debates over Corcyraean
alliance, the fate of Mytilene, and the Sicilian expedition) in which sets of
speeches are delivered in the Athenian Assembly. These passages lead the
reader to form certain judgments about the failure of the Athenians to
fulfill either of the conditions noted above. Here I will touch on only the
final scene, the Sicilian Debate.27
Book 6 begins: "In that ... winter the Athenians decided ... to sail
against Sicily and, if possible, conquer it," although "hoi polloi were
ignorant (apeiroi) of the great size of the island, of the numerousness of
its Greek and barbarian population, and that they were undertaking a
war not much smaller than that against the Peloponnesians" (6.1.1). Th~ _:~''',:;,
cydides then describes the island's size, population, and early history,."!"' , :;;::.
(6.1.2.-6.5) in order to demonstrate that "it was against such an island''''';'' ... :
that the Athenians were eager (hormento) to make war." They int~nded,.:... ~
we are told, to 'rule the entire island, although they wanted to make it" -:-,<.,,:::
appear that they were offering aid to allies and kinsmen (6.6.1). Thucydi~ ',~ ~:
des' sober and detailed description of Sicily contrasts sharply with the ;., •• ,
transparent duplicity and pathetic ignorance he attributes to the Athe· •. "~";'
'. nian masses. In the three speeches by Nikias and Alkibiades that follow, ;:' ",,' ,.'
as in other Assembly speech scenes, Thucydides establishes a contest ',.
between his historical way of knowing and democratic knowledge, be-'"
tween his text and public speeches, between his readers and Athenian
The scene is set: Sicilian Segesta has asked for Athenian military aid;
the Athenians dispatched a fact-finding mission (6.6.I-2.) that returned
with accounts of Sicilian resources "both encouraging and untrue~. (ouk
a/ethe, 6.8.2.). On the basis of this misinformation, which they evidently
believed, the Assembly voted to send a force of sixty ships to Sicily (6.8.2-':'.
3). Five days later, a second Assembly was held, to vote on any additio~al
material the generals ,felt would be necessary (6.8.2.-3). As the debate :: "~:'
opens Nikias, who had been designated a leader of the expedition, has ,. _ .....,.
come to feel that the slight and specious pretext of the alliance is inade- '
quate to the monumental reality (megalou ergou) of attempting to con"""",
quer the entire island of Sicily (6.8.3-4). He hopes to persuade the Athenians to rescind the decree authorizing the expedition, in effect to "undo"
: ,_
the speech act performed at the previous meeting of the'Assembly (6.9.I). ,; -;;,,,,:~
This is a tall order. Nikias admits that his logos is unlikely to prevail .,. .-'
against the Athenian character (tropoi) and that it will be difficult to - ' -,"'"
dissuade his audience from taking risks in regard to "the still-obscure '- •.,'
future." But he nonetheless tries to teach (didaxo) his audience that it will
not be easy to accomplish that which they are eager to do (hormesthe,
6.9.3). Nikias' language recalls Perikles' comments on speech and action
in the Funeral Oration, but Nikias hopes that, "instructed by speecP," the
Athenians will be willing not to act. 28
Nikias establishes his political credentials with a claim never to have
spoken in public "against his own opinion" (para gnomen, 6.9.2.). He
points out that he has no personal interest in blocking the expedition
(6.9.2.), thus setting up a contrast to Alkibiades' great personal interest in,
having the expedition sail. But ever-moderate Nikias qualifies his state- '.. ,,,.
ment: I do, however, believe that a good citizen takes forethought for his ~:-. ;:.--own body and goods because this man will sincerely wish that the affairs'-"'''of the polis should prosper so that his own will (6.9.2). Like other Athe-;':·..... :;-."
'.- ...
nian public speakers, Nikias hopes to show that there is no necessary gap
between personal and public interests. But his comment undercuts the
contrast between himself and Alkibiades and leaves his opponent with a
deadly rhetorical counter. 29
Nikias attempts to show the Athenians that the expedition is dangerous in light of the continued antagonism of the Spartans. The plots
of certain Athenians and our enemies have made the peace treaty into
"merely a name" (onoma). He correctly predicts that the treaty will not
stop the Peloponnesians from attacking should Athens suffer a defeat
abroad. But, like other Assembly speakers in Thucydides' history, Nikias
also resorts to dubious arguments from probability and vague maxims. 3o
He also appeals to Athenian fear of antidemocratic conspiracies. 31 Thucydides' forthcoming description of Athenian hysteria over the affair of
the Herm-smashers will show his readers how very dangerous this last
line of argument could be.
Like other public speakers, Nikias emphasizes the need to concentrate on national interests..l2 He points out the Segestans' national interests lie in telling plausible untruths; they have nothing to contribute but
logoi (6.12..1). This leads to his attack on Alkibiades' narrowly personal
and selfish motivation (to heautou monon skopon): Alkibiades hopes to
profit from the command, but the Athenians must not endanger the polis
in order that Alkibiades may appear brilliant in his private life (idiai).
Nikias claims to fear Alkibiades' supporters; he calls upon older citizens
to counter their claim that voting against the expedition is a sign of
cowardice (6.1J.I). Nikias appeals again and again to polis and patris
(6.13.1-6.14), and in a key passage he argues that forethought (pronoia)
is the best thing for the state, intense desire (epithumia) the worst (6.13.1).
Alkibiades is epithumia personified,33 Grabbing the thread of Nikias'
linking of private and public interest, he unravels his opponent's argument by evoking an Athens in which the successful risk-taker is freed
from the constraints of egalitarian mores. Alkibiades trumpets the propaganda effect of his recent triple chariot-racing victory at Olympia: as a
result of my victory the other Greeks have come to believe our dunamis is
great. The reference to Olympia underlines the agonistic nature of the
current speech competition in the Assembly, and Alkibiades confronts
Nikias' charge of self-interest head on: "It is a useful sort of folly if, by
expending private means, someone profits not only himself, but also the
polis" (6.16.3).
Alkibiades admits that because of his desire for great personal fame
he has been criticized in regard to his private affairs (ta idia), but he asks
the Athenians to look around and see if there is anyone better than himself at public administration (ta demosia).34 The proof? I brought about a
useful anti-Spartan alliance in the Peloponnesos which "entailed no sig-:;::.· "'''"'
nificant danger or expense for you" (aneu . •. kindunou kai dapanes" '",,:'
6.16.6). This sounds good, but is it true? Alkibiades' "alliance" is the . . .;;:-"':
"plot" that Nikias claims rendered the peace treaty a mere name and too
insubstantial to . restrain Spartan aggression. Readersmay remember the'~ .::::
Corcyraeans' confident and erroneous prediction that their alliance
ok';'-: .
would make Athens stronger "without dangers or expense" (aneu kindu~ ,: .-:-.
non kai dapanes, 1.33.2). Thucydides' readers should by now have ex,:-' .•..:.• ~
tracted from his historical examples (e.g., Epidamnos and Corcyra) the
rule that every alliance is a potential source of danger and expense, for
every alliance redirects the flo\V of power.
Readers will be even more dubious when they come to Alkibiades'
follow-up: it was by means of appropriate logoi that I found a.way of
dealing with the dunamis of the Peloponnesians, and by stirring up passion (orge) I won their trust (.6.17.1). Alkibiades' naive confidence that
logoi could tame dunamis is unlikely to persuade the reader who has got .
this far in Thucydides' narrative, and who has learned Thucydides~,core .~
lesson: the all-important difference between mere words and brute fact..; _
The blithe expectation that orge could be the basis for a sound policy •
smacks of Kleon's demagogic appeals to righteous anger in the Mytile- ...
nian Debate (3.4°.7),
.. ~.".' .".
Alkibiades then argues, "on the basis of what I hear from my informants" (ex hon akoei aisthanomai, 6.17.6), that the Sicilians are light- :....~weights who will not put up much resistance,3S This is patently false, but
Alkibiades' ignorant listeners accept the speaker's words as ali adequate ~-;'::.:::
representation of the men they will soon be fighting;· Alkibiades con~ ~,.:::;;':'
cludes his portrayal of Sicilians by suggesting that it is hardly likely.(ouk ...........;.,-:.:.
eikos) that such a mob (homilos), unable to listen to a logos as if with a ':"
single mind (mia gnome), will be able to engage in communal erga •. :. .
(6.17-4). By implication, if the Athenians do listen to him with "a single
mind," if they ignore or forbid opposition, they will be able to initiate a
great project in common. The danger of this line of argument will soon
become apparent.
Alkibiades brushes aside the charge that the expedition will be risky, .
offering a specious historical analogy with the Persian Wars (6.17.7), and ,.
then he fires off a string of highly questionable maxims, predictions, and ~
arguments from history and probability,36 He concludes with appeals to ~'"
national unity and to Athens' innate nature: a polis active by nature wiU-: ~.,
ruin itself if it becomes passive, so it is better to stick to our active ways,'''; .
even if they are imperfect (6.18.7). The sentiment, the context, and the~:
vocabulary all recall Kleon. 37 Thucydides' readers have by now learned::.":' :C"':
that one must be skeptical of this sort of oration. Not so the Athenian'
_, .
...... ...,,-~-:
; t··
assemblymen. Having heard Alkibiades' speech, they were much more
eager (homento) than before for the expedition (6.19. 1). Nikias now made
a momentous decision: because his previous argument had failed to deter
the assemblymen, he would attempt to alter their resolution by grossly
overestimating the size of the force that would be needed (6.19. 2 , cf.
Nikias begins his second speech by acknowledging that it is the will
of the Assembly to sail, and he claims that he will now inform them of
what is needed (6.20.1). Thucydides' readers know that this acknowledgment is insincere and that Nikias is drifting perilously close to saying one
thing in public while believing another-a form of political dishonesty
that he proudly renounced in his previous speech. He contradicts AIkibiades' overconfident assessment of the Sicilian situation: "According
to what I hear from my informants" (hos ego akoei aisthanomai)., we will
be going against poleis, many of them Greek, which are large, not at odds
with one another, not likely to want a new government, or willing to give
up their freedom in order to be ruled by us" (6.20.2). By mimicking his
opponent's words, Nikias initiates a contest of facts: Alkibiacles' information about Sicily versus his own. Nikias supposes that he can win this
contest and thereby deflate Athenian enthusiasm. Much of the speech
(6.20.2-23.3) details the tactical difficulties the Athenian expeditionary
fo~ce will encounter, an assessment that Thucydides' subsequent narrative confirms as factually correct. 3H So far, this fact-oriented presentation
of realia seems a, model speech by Thucydidean standards. But then., at
the end of the speech comes the rhetorical kicker that Thucydides' prior
discussion of Nikias' intentions had prepared us for: the invading forces
will have to be immense, but if [only if!] we do all this, I believe that there
will be maximum security (bebaiotata) for the polis, and safety (soteria)
for our soldiers (6.23.3).
Nikias' seemingly clever rhetorical plan, to deter enthusiasm by
means of hyperbole, backfired badly: the assemblymen's desire (to ep;thumoun) for sailing was in no way dampened by the greatness of the
necessary preparations; the Athenians, now convinced that the expedition would be completely safe if they voted for all that Nikias demanded,
became even more eager (polu de ma/lon hormento: 6.24. 2 ). And so "a
passionate lust (eros) to sail burst upon everyone equally" (6.24.3 ).39 In
the feverish atmosphere opposition was impossible: because of the intense desire (epithumia) of the great majority, those few who still harbored doubts dared not speak out against the expedition lest they appear
traitors to the polis, and so they kept quiet (6.24.4). Born of selfish and
factional interests, midwifed by clever public rhetoric and ignorance, the
myth of perfect unity possessed the Athenians.
The results of this erotic possession are, by ~urns, magnificent and"'':;::~.v.:.
horrific. The huge expedition was duly voted (6.2.5). The preparations :r~~,.
completed, the entire population of Athens went down to Pekaieus to ~~~~.
witness the launching (6.30.2). There was a moment of fear, when Jhe- "'~r;::'
true riskiness of what they were doing impressed itSelf upon the throng~.,~·<v
but unease gave way to confidence as the Athenians feasted their eyes;--'~~"
upon the sight of the huge fleet (6.31.1)."0 Thucydides lavishessuperla;" ~
tives on the expeditionary force (6.31.1-32..2.). Yet he also points out that,~" "
to the other Hellenes it seemed more a display (epideixis) of dunamis than,
a military expedition (6.31.4) and that on it rested all the hopes of the ,; .'
polis (6.31.6). The eventual oUtcome, the utter destruction of the Athe:nian naval and land forces in Sicily in 413 B.C" was equally great: "This
accomplishment [ergon = the Syracusan defeat of Athens] was th~ great~'~ .<;est of the war, indeed, in my opinion the greatest in the known history' 'of ....;~ .
the Greeks" (7.87.S):u
. " .:. .".-,
If the destruction of the expedition is the greatest ergon of the war,'~:,'
then the decree that launched it, enacted by a collectivity possessed an~:'
artificially unified by desire, was commensurately wrong-headed."2 Who':~·
was to blame? Not just naughty, sexy Alkibiades. Thucydides makes it
clear that Nikias himself was responsible for much of the general lust. . '
The verb that traces the upward spiral of Athenian enthusiasm is hormao," ~':.:
"to be eager to initiate an affair."43 The Athenians do not seem especially ,~:~~p:­
Inad for the expedition before the speech-contest of the second Assenlbly, .•
a meeting that was called simply to iron out the administrative details of
sending out a moderate-sized sixty-ship mission, It i,s Nikias who .re-:,.
kindled the general debate (6.14). In his first speech, Nikias describes the,' . ;t~ .....
Athenians as "eager to initiate" (6.9.3) the 'expedition; after his second .,
speech they are "even more eager" ( By his violent personal attack ,.. on Alkibiades, Nikias ensured (6.15.2.) that his opponent would make the .
reply that made the assemblymen~ "much more eager thano.-before"- .,
(6.19.1). Rather than cutting his losses after the success of his opponent's
speech, Nikias decided to act against both the general will and his own
character, by challenging his enemy di~eetly in a rhetorical contest. In his
second speech Nikias abandons "his own genuine opinion" in favor,of an.:~· .'
overclever rhetorical strategy that feeds the flames of popular enthusiasm.~··"",',,"
The construction of the scene suggests that Nikias, an excellent 3J1d': .:
moral man (as Thucydides is at pains to tell us, 7.86), was tricked by the,:"'~ ,,'
agonistic context of the democratic decision-inaking process into the self~~~ ..~·:· .'::.,
betrayal that will destroy both himself and Athens· power. Nikias' strat-'
egy in his second speech was based on the assumption that the assembly·'" ~,.".,:,
men recognized a distinction between words and facts. His rhetorical ~ _.
bluff required that his own words invoke an external reality of expensive .~:.~:;,J
'h· .',- '.'
(4.' .
f,. ..
material necessities. He imagined that the Athenians would be sobered by
a confrontation with the facts (huge expense, tactical difficulties) to
which his words referred. But he forgot that in the context of the Assembly language was less referential than performative: the Assembly was a
battleground of speech in which words were, through felicitous speech
performances (i.e., the enactment of decrees), transmuted into social and
political realities. 44 The Funeral Oration ideal, which elides the difficulty
of moving from political speech in a democracy to effective action, here
reaches its telos: speech becomes more than a spur to action; with the
enactment of the decree authorizing the great expedition, speech is isomorphic with action~ The distinction between words and facts melts away
with predictably (in Thucydides' realm) bad results.
Thucydides' explanation of why Nikias' hyperbole fanned the fires
of public desire is implicit in his depiction of how the Assembly "processed" the knowledge presented in verbal arguments. In the debates over
Corcyra and Mytilene, the assemblymen were forced to choose between
two positions. Thucydides' text suggests that in neither case was the final
choice completely rational, because the assemblymen had no independent means of judging or testing the accuracy of each speaker's factual statements. But Thucydides also showed that even self-interested
speeches might contain some truth, and so the decisions made by the
Assembly did not necessarily result in bad outcomes. 45 The Sicilian Debate might have followed the same scenario. Nikias tries to refute AIkibiades' facts with his own better facts, but the Athenians refuse to
choose between the two competing descriptions of external reality. They
solve the politicaVepistemological dilemma posed by Thucydides-democratic decision-making as typically based on misinformation because of
the agonistic nature of Assembly debate-by rejecting contradiction and
combining Alkibiades' argument that there must be an expedition with
Nikias' argument that it must be almost impossibly huge. As Thucydides
told us at the beginning of the scene, they are still ignorant of the realities
of Sicily, but, through their speech act, they have created an imaginary
Sicily as an opponent for the imagined Demos. This imaginary Sicily
cannot be strong enough to hurt the great dunamis that the assemblymen
have called into being by the authorizing decree. And thus, in Alkibiades'
dangerously optimistic and exclusionary formulation, the only outcomes
they can foresee are the conquest of Hellas, or helping their friends and
hurting their enemies.
The result of this "solution" is that the Athenians become (in AIkibiades' words) a being with a single mind (mia gnome) and a single
purpose, a being that embodies the ideological dream of an end to all the
complex contradictions, distinctions, and uncertainties that led to politi-
"'~ ./~..;;:;::~'
cal friction. The idealizing discourse of Perildes' Funeral Oration is a~_,
tualized: the agon of politics becomes a love feast where "ev~rybody='2~­
wins."46 Individual self-interest and desire to excel unites with the public'!'>'"
good. Social unequals and political equals, the many and the few, old an4.: ''V.
young, dissolve into an ideological "all." The future is no longer un1cDown': '. ;
because the huge dunamis called into existence by the Assembly's decree,-. ~-'l'
has transmuted uncertainty into a sure thing. Justice and expediency go
hand in hand because Athens will help its Sicilian allies through the self- -.,
serving act of conquering Sicily. The demos, freed from the braking ten--";".
dency of sociopolitical friction, .driven by desire, impatient with delay, is
angered by any hint that contradictions or impediments remain. This .
unity is of course false. But it is highly dangerous to oppose the consensus ;,~_.
in public, and so all critics of unanimity are gagged. Political criticism of ,'.~,
the political myth becomes impossible in the face of the hegemonic will of ;..,.
The tragic outcome is practically foreordained. The expedition,.a::.~~ ,:'
product of false words and personal interests, crashes into the complex ..~ .'
and harsh realities of war in the real world, and sinks; fragile unity de- ~ - ~,;.'
volves into stasis. 47 Books 6 and 7, with their detailed and vivid gescrip;. ..,,;;:::*:
tions of the initial successes, subsequent crumbling, and final collapse of':!~';;:::~'
the Athenian expeditionary force in Sicily, present Thucydides' strongest .,~.~,,;~_
case for the priority of erga ove.r logoi and for the instability of democ- .~.
racy when it is reenvisioned as government by competing speeches.'
Thucydides' summation of why Athens lost the Peloponnesian War •
(2.65) begins with the statement that under Perikles' leadership Athens' . ~
was a democracy only in logos (%..65.9). The implied inverse is that, after" , .,Perikles' death, demokratia existed as an ergon and that this led to disas~
ter. Real demokratia meant that democratic knowledge was theepistemic
authority undergirding decisions about actions the state would undertake. As a result, decisions were predicated on speech-contests rather
than on fact and foresight. Speech-contests were the result of, and in tulDM.•. ·...
exacerbated, selfishness and factionalism. As the contests became fiercer, ;_:;-."
there was a growing tendency for speaker and audience to confuse polit~- .;::;.,
cal enactment with reality. In Thucydides' text, the public performance 0(; ~',
a speech act in the democratic polity docs not felicitously call into being....... .'."",,,'
sociopolitical realities, it evokes a false and fragile vision of reality that is "':';.......:.'~;
shattered by its inevitable collision with brute fact. Perikles' inferior suc- --:;.:;::
cessors competed through public speech for the "leadership" of th~ d~~ ':'-";;:::"
mos-a leadership that the text now reveals as the spurious privilege ~f;:;; ::,;:;:
using lies in order to persuade the demos to enact fictions. These fictions ,~,
were dangerous first because the contests reflected and inflamed the self-~_. ,,:~;~...
ish ambitions of individuals and sociopolitical factions, and second. be- ;;,~:..:;"
. 'It''
cause they involved a mighty dunamis and the communal kratos wielded
. by a numerous and increasingly willful demos, a demos that tended to
confuse ideology with truth and political speech with reality. When this
kratos was unleashed by unrestrained speech-contests, Athens' dunamis
• was misdirected and lost in Sicily, and Athens fell into the stasis of 4IIlIo.
Here, with the apparent demise of demokratia, Thucydides' text
. abruptly ends. His critical argument, if not his historical narrative of the
twenty-seven-year (5.26,1) war, is complete. The text as we have it empirically demonstrates the validity of his historical counterepistemology, by
showing how and why the linkage between democratic knowledge and
democratic political power led to the destruction of both democratic
Athenian political life and Athenian dunamis. It is, however, worth noting that Thucydides' critical project, compelling (if chilling) as a logos,
was not fully sustained by the erga. Demokratia bounced back after 410,
Athens rebuilt its military power, and the conflict with Sparta lasted a
good deal longer than twenty-seven years. 48
Because of its vulnerability to falsification on the empirical basis of
observable "realities," a political theory that claimed to explain the probable future on the basis of accurate knowledge about the recent past was
perhaps, in the long run at least, a flawed vehicle for literary resistance
to Athenian civic ideology. We certainly need not accept Thucydides'
pessimistic conclusions about public speech and collective action. But the
fact that Thucydides could conceive, execute, and find an audience for
such a profound and sustained criticism of Athenian democracy should
help us to define the limits of the hegemonic tendencies of democratic
This essay is adapted from parts of two chapters of a book-in-progress,
tentatively entitled "Athenian Critics of Popular Rule." I wrote drafts of the
chapters while I was a Junior Fellow of the Center for Hellenic Studies. I thank
the Director and Fellows (both Senior and Junior) of the center for the year
1989-90. Along with the administration of Montana State University (who
helped support my stay at the center), they made it possible for this study to be
undertaken in the pleasantest of circumstances.
I. Civic ideology, democratic discourse, and hegemony: Ober 1989a.
2.. Power-as-discourse: Foucault 1980, 78-133. Although Foucault refers
• briefly to the possibility of resistance (e.g., 1980, 82.-83, 108, 134 -4 5), several
of Foucault's critics have pointed out that his theory fails to give an adequate
account of the phenomenon of resistance (including the resistance to power-as. discourse implicit in his own writings); see essays by Taylor and Said in Hoy
1986, 69-102., 149-55·
,r.rd~t' .•.·
3· See, for example, Bloom 1987, who argues that the supposed hegemony~~,£~....
of democratic egalitarianism is among the evils of modern American society.
4· Importance of context: Skinner in Skinner etal. 1988, 56-63. The nQ''''''''f''
tion that these two analytic modes are compatible is important to my argu- .::- ....:-.
ment. Although Skinller and Foucault may seem far apart on (esp.) the issue of~,;::
intention, the sharpness of the contrast can be overdrawn. Cf. Skinner 2.3 1... 8 8
(esp. 2.71-73), where the hermeneutic scope he allots to authorial intentionality is considerably scaled back.
5· This is among the central arguments of Ober 1989a; see esp. 2.93-339.
--6. Austin 1975. Austin's argument is usefully extended and reworked to
better explain political speech, esp. in revolutionary situations, by Petrey 19 88 .
Conventional effect quote: Petrey 1988, 77, slightly rephrasing Austin's "rule'
7· Foucault's theory of power: n. 2. above. Democratic hegemony: Ober
19 89a, 332.-39· I adapt the concept of ideological hegemony from A. Gramsci;
for a useful discussion, see Femia 1981, 1-I2.9. The issue of textual resistance to
ideological authority is also important to Skinner: Skinner et aJ. 1988, 2.7 6,
. ::;..
8. On historical knowledge and discourse-as-resistance, cf. Petrey 19 88,
_" ;::::.::;'
193: "A verbal form alien to dominant discourse takes legitimacy from its
.,'" : .
appeal to a different historical moment producing different rules for what ~:.
words can do."
~ _ _ ,::;;,.q.
Thucydides' political viewpoint is far from transparent. The loci classici are. ,- ·,t.""..".."'p,/<
2..65 (praise of Perikles, see below) and 8.97: praise of the broad·based oligar.:.....,
chy of the Five Thousand. Modern readings have had Thucydides all over the
political map, e.g., Finley 1942., 2.37: Thucydides was by nature a democrat
incapable of conceiving a great progressive city except as a democracy. Woodhead 1970, 34-35: Thucydides did not approve of democraCY:' De Romilly
197 6,93-1°5: Thucydides was an advocate of a "mixed constitution." Connor
19 84, 2.37-42. (with review of literature): Thucydides was neither a simple
antidemocrat nor a proponent of oligarchy. Pope 1988. 2.76-96: Thucydides
was not esp. antidemocratic but regarded both democrats and oligarchs as
contributing to the breakdown of community during the Peloponnesian War.
....,.: ..,"'",.
My argument looks at the text as a whole and offers no contribution to the '.. ." "':.'.
"Thucydidean question" of composition. For this long. largely sterile. debate.- ~.., ,
see Rawlings 1981. 2.50-54.
..--9· The Athenian ignorance of the facts regarding the tyrants has tragic
.... ·
political consequences during the affair of the Herms (6.60.1); see Rawlings
19 81 , 2.5 6-59; cf. Euben 1986, 361: the tyrannicide story "reveals human
beings as creators of meaning in the context of political struggle."
.~ ~-::
10. Plethos as a term foethe mass of ordinary citizens: Ruze 1984, 2.59-63.
Note that plethos could, in the mid-fifth century, be used in official documents <
as a synonym for demos: ML 40 (= IG 13 14: Erythrai decree).
.~ "'_ ,'.t.. ~.."
I 1. The suppositions that each Spartan king had two votes in council and .~, ,:., .,.,;;"
that there was a Spartan battalion called the P i t a n e s . - - " ' ·
12.. This criticism has (at least) two targets: Herodotus, whose Histories
.. ~'.t;-
. 'I.~;·
~O#: "'~·t
,~l: N'
contain these two errors, and the Athenian masses, who are implied by the
term hoi polloi. Herodotus and the errors on Spartan kings and Pitanes:
Gomme in HCT I, ad loco Hoi polloi as term for citizen masses: Ober 1989a,
u. Hornblower 1987, 155-90, points out Thucydides' authorial self-certainty
and the rarity of this stance in ancient historiography.
13. In translating ergon as "fact," I am following the lead of Parry 1981, 13,
76-89, and esp. 91.-93: ergon can mean anything wrought or done, or deeds
of war, or the whole business of war. "But then there is a slightly different
direction in the meaning of ergon, whereby it stands for fact, or reality, the
thing that was actually done. It is this side of the word that makes it appropriate for the logos/ergon antithesis." As Parry points out, the two meanings of
ergon as fact and as deed are quite close and are often conjoined in Thucydides.
Thus, ergon in the antithesis "means external reality, but then it also means the
d~eds of war, and so war; and by insisting on this, Thucydides presents war as
the reality, the complex of external forces within which the human intellect
strives and operates,"
14. The ranks of the logographoi must include the political orators of
Athens. Logographos is not used again in Thucydides' text; for the translation
here, d. Connor 1984, 1.11. Logographos as a term for speech-writer in later
Grcoek rhetoric: Lavency 1964. As Aristotle points out (Rhet. 1418a 1.1-1.9),
speeches presented in Assembly deal with the affairs of the future, and speeches
were the basis of decision-making in the democracy.
15. True historical objectivity, if defined as the absence of perspective, the
"view from nowhere," is, of course, simply impossible; see Novick 191111. Yet it
is important to keep in mind that Thucydides' motive for claiming to be "objective" was not the same as that of the "scientific'~ historians of late-nineteenth
and twentieth centuries who attempted (and attempt) to follow von Ranke's
dictum that it was the historian's duty to relate history "wie es eigentlich
gewesen war." Thucydides was not writing within the confines of an established discipline, or for a disciplinary audience. Thus it seems relatively mean·
ingless to criticize him for not being "truly" objective by Rankean standards
(d. n. 18 below). Objectivity is a rhetorical stance for Thucydides, one that
offered him a needed point d'appui for his critical project.
16. Rhetorical appeals to the validity of public opinion and to historical
examples: Ober 1989a, 156-70, 177-81..
17. Cf. Parry 1981,48,83-88.
18. For this much-discussed claim that history should be useful, see, e.g.,
Rawlings 1981, 1.54-63; and Connor 19114, 1.43-411. Gomme in HCT 1.14950, argues "the future things" are future still to Thucydides, but assumed to be
past to the reader. Thus, Thucydides does not suggest that his work will be of
any help to one who hopes to understand what is still in his own future; and
therefore Thucydides is not to be taken as giving practical advice for political
agents. Gomme's argument strains the sense of the passage and is predicated on
seeing Thucydides as a historian, with a modern historian's interests. The other
side of the "modernist Thucydides" coin is the view of him as a dishonest
... ,
historian, who knew Chat historians should be objective, but willfully d~ided;;;p:t::, ,.Ar:~
not to be: e.g., Wallace 1964; and Hunter 1973, esp. 177-84. Cf. ~~lings
...1981, 1.63-71.: no meaningful line can be drawn between the historian as
reporter of events;md historian as artist; Connor 1984, esp.• 2.35-36: the text is ".
complex and forces the reader to challenge positions the text itself seems to'
19. On the text's didactic tendencies, cf. Hunter 1973, 179-83; Cogan' ."
1981, xvii; Rawlings 1981, 1.61-61.; and Connor 1984.
,1.0. See esp. 1.1..4, 1.7.1, 1.8.1.:-3. Population. capital, and navy as the main
elements of Thucydides' definition of power: 1.4. 1.7.1, 1.8.2.-3. 1.9.2.. 1.9.3;
I.II.I-5, I.Ip-l.14.3, I.Ip. Cf. Connor 1984, 2.0-32., 2.46-48. For Thucydi~::'
des on power, see also Woodhead 1970; Immerwahr 1973; Allison 1989; and '. >-""':'
the essays collected in Lebow and Strauss 1991.
z.I. Kratos as domination: I.I43.4, 4.98.2., 8.46, 8.76.4; the strength to
carry out a war: 3.13.7; violent means used to take a city: 1.64.3, I.u8.3. For
other examples, see Betant 1843, s . v . ' : ' · ; ; ; : ; ' : ·
H. See, e.g., Pouncey 1980, xi: Thucydides' "assumption is that human ,,- '~i~~
nature remains relatively constant." But contrast Farrar 1988, 13S-37, 139;
who claims that Thucydides' view of human nature is not static; Flory 1988, ~ ......,...., ..
43-56: Thucydides' view of human nature is neither rigid nor strict.
1.3. Plague and individual selfishness: 2..53. Contrast 2..S!: examples Qf self· ...
less care of others. Late-fifth-century Athenian political writers were very inter·;';:~' ~. ested in the iss'ue of what is "natural" (phusis) and what is a product of human .~. . ....
society (nomos); see Ostwald 1986,1.60-73. Because I do not accept the postulates of methodological individualism as universally valid, I cannot agree with
Pouncey 1980, xii, that Thucydides' view is that in times of crisis (e.g., stasis)
human nature is "tracked to its proper ground in the human individuaJ.~ On
Thucydides' emphasis on groups rather than individuals, see Pope 1988.
1.4. Athenian ideal of consensus (homonoia): Ober I989a. 2.95-99.
1.5. Imagined Demos: Ober 1989b, 32.9-32.. The citizens in the Assembly -'
were not, of course, in any formal sense "representatives" of their fellow citi~
zens, for every Athenian citizen had the right to attend any Assembly. For a _
review of Athenian governmental procedure, see Ober 1989a, 53-ISS.
1.6. Ober 1989a, 4 with n. 2. for bibliography on this distinction. Sealey::· .'::.,""""'.
1973, 1.83-90,unsuccessfully attempts to show that demos in Thucydides has" ....: ;:no class meaning.
1.7. The three s.ets of speeches: 1.31-44 (Corcyraean Debate), 3.36"749.1
(Myti!enean Debate), a~d 6.~-~6 ~Sicili~n Debate). I exdud~ Ass~mbly scenes~.:..#~
III whIch speeches are gIven m mdlrect discourse, and those In which only one_~'
speech is presented. Bibliography on speeches in Thucydides (to 1970): Welt ill :: ..:::::
in Stadter 1973, I2.4-61. Useful discussions of the Sicilian Debate include 7" ~~.:
Tompkins 1971.; Stahl 1973; and Connor 1984, 162.-68,2.37.
- , " -..
1.8. By referring to the revoking of a decree as "undoing a perfor~ed speech'.;;
act," I am consciously casting the political process of the Assembly In terms of
Austin's theory; see above. The relationship between persuasive public speech~" ,...
and collective action is of key importance in Perikles' Funeral Oration (2..40.2.3) and in the Mytilene Debate (3.38.1-4, 3.42..2.).
2.9. For comments of other Athenian speakers on the issue of personal and
public interests, d. 2..37.1-3 (Funeral Oration) and J.38.2.-3, 3.40.3, 3.42..3-6
(Mytilenean Debate).
30. We should not fear the creation of a Syracusan empire, for it is hardly
likely (ouk eikos) that an empire would attack another empire (6.11.3); it will
impress our enemies more if we do not sail because "we all know" that people
are most impressed by that which is most distant and least testable (6.11.4).
Examples of other Assembly speakers' maxims: Corcyraeans (1.33.4, 1.34.3,
1·35·5), Corinthians (1·41.2.-3, 1·42..2., 1.42..4), Kleon (3·37.2., 3.39.2., 3.39.5,
304°.1), and Diodotos (3.45.3-6).
3 I. If we are soberly realistic (sophronoumen), we will realize that the
contest (agon) is not against the barbarous Sicilians, but against Spartan plots
to impose an oligarchy upon Athens (6.II.7).
32.. Other Assembly speakers on the priority of Athenian interests: Corcyraeans (I.32..I), Kleon (3.40.4), and Diodotos (3.44).
33. In Thucydides' one-paragraph introduction (6.15), Alkibiades is first
called "most-ardent" (prothumotata) for the expedition, and desirous (epithumon, 15.2.) of the generalship. His desires were greater (epithumiais meizosill,
15.3) than his means, and eventually the demos came to believe that he lusted
after (epithumounti, 15.4) tyranny. Cf. Hunter 1973, 180 on Alkibiades; she
seems to go too far (8-9) in arguing that "Thucydides' characters ... are not
real people at all but mere [my emphasis] personifications of one quality or
34. This claim is supported by Thucydides' narrative comments on AIkibiades: 6.15+
35· The Athenians will not be facing a big dunamis in Sicily (6.17.1); like all
Greeks, the Sicilians falsify their numerical strength (6.17.5). Each Sicilian is
just out to get what he can for himself by making clever speeches, or by stirring
up a stasis so that he can take from the common store; if unsuccessful, he will
simply move to some other land (6.17.3). This last does not accurately describe
the real Sicilians whom the Athenians will encounter in the invasion, but it
could be taken as a succinct (if hostile) posteventum description of Alkibiades'
own career: he is just now making a clever speech, he will soon defect to
Sparta, and he will benefit by the Athenian stasis of 411/0. Thucydides' readers
will learn all this in due course.
36. All empires were gained by helping those in need; inactivity is more
risky than action; if we do not expand we risk being conquered ourselves
(6.18·2.-3)· Don't worry about the Peloponnesians, our sailing to Sicily will
befuddle them. Anyway, the expedition can have only two possible outcomes:
either we conquer Hellas, or we'll hurt Syracuse and help our allies (6.18.4).
Don't be fooled by Nikias' attempt to create social unrest (diastasis) by appeal·
ing to the elders; let's do as our fathers did and stand united, young and old.
Keep in mind that, like all things, a polis can wear out if it is inactive, but if it
engages in contests (agonizomenen) it will gain experience and will be able to~' . ~ ..
defend itself, not just in speech (logoi) but in fact (ergoi, 6.18.6).
37. Vocabulary: Alkibiades: gignosko ... nomois . .. kheiro.... KJeon .. '''.•,
(3.37.3): gnosometha . .. kheirosi nomois.
38. Sicilian cavalry will be a big factor; the Athenians cannot expect torecruit cavalry i~ Sicily; they might need to send home for more supplies; the' ...
money promised by the Segestans exists only in logos; if we don't conqQer .the " .'0"
whole island quickly, we'll be surrounded by enemies.
f9. The old men thought such a great dunamis was likely to succeed or at
-- least to be invulnerable; the young hoped to see wonders and felt they could do
; -..
so safely; the mob (homilos) looked forward to military pay.
40. Dia to plethos hekaston hon heoron, tei opsei anetharsoun. 11,lis exam- . ,.~::::.-::,
pie of the masses' false confidence resulting from seeing demonstrates that
-. ,.,
visual perception can be just as misleading as verbal persuasion. Cf. Stahl 1973,
73-74; Brittan, "History, Testimony, and Two Kinds of Scepticism,". in
krabarti, ed., Testimony (n.d.). The inability of visual perception alone ~9 over~' :~_
come the illusions of speech within the context of the democratic regime is an
important issue for the Athenian antidemocratic "critical enterprise"; it recurs.- :;:;'::
in Aristophanes (Ecc/esiazusae) and, of course, in Plato's epistemology.
41, The location of this edokei moi-type construction in the sentence fits
the methodological scheme Thucydides laid out in the proemium. According tl;l..
Thucydides' categories, it was a demonstrable fact that the defeat was the
greatest ergon of the war. But because ancient history is knowable only by
inference, it can only be his (informed) opinion that this was the greatest ergon
of all Greek history.
41. However, d. 6.47-50 (victory in Sicily seems possible); 2..65.11: Thucydides here claims that the error was not so much ignorance about what to
expect in Sicily (ou tosouton gnomes harmatema en pros -hous epeisan), as a
failure by those at home in Athens to support the expedition. This claim is --:.~ .•.
contradicted by Thucydides' narrative; see Gomme in ReT 1. ad loco
43. See above: 6.6.1,6.9.3,6.19.1, The chronological context of 6.6.1
. (hoi Athenaioi strateuein hormento) seems to be after the second Assembly, but
before the launching of the expedition.
44. Felicity (successfulness) of speech performances (as judged by the sub-'
sequent behavior of the relevant parties): Austin 1975, 14-14, 116-17; and
-.' :
Petrey 1988, 31-48.
45. Truth, that is, as judged by conformity to the erga, or to Thucydides: .. -~=
own interpretation: e.g., the Corcyraeans predict the coming war and identify· ~"~­
Spartan fear (phobos) of Athenian power as the prime cause (1.33.3); Corin· . ,~
thians predict that Athens' allies will revolt (1.40.6).
." 00_' . .... ;::::::.
46. Athenian ideal of consensus: above n. 2.4. Mia gnome, vel sim. in.(later).'· ~:::<
Athenian rhetoric: Dem. 19.2.98; Din. 1.99; And. 2..1; Lys. 1.12., 17, 14; and.
Aeschines 3.2.08. Idealizing discourse of the Funeral Oration (Perikles' and
others): Loraux 1986.
•. . .... '''~.
47. Cf. Eco 1976, 66: death, once it has occurred, is the one thing that
cannot be semioticized.
48. The last years of the twenty-seven-year war, and the ongoing conflict
between Sparta and Athens in the 390S and 380S, are recounted by Xenophon,
Hellenica; d. Strauss 1986. On the question of whether Thucydides survived
into the 390S, see the contrasting views of Pouilloux and Salviat 1985; and
Cartledge 1984.
Works Cited
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Betant, E.-A. 1843. Lexicon Thucydideum. 1 vols. Geneva. Reprint. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1961.
Bloom, Allan. 1987. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and
Brittan, Gordon. n.d. "History, Tcstin~ony, and Two Kinds of Scepticism." In
Testimony, edited by Arindam Chakrabarti. Dordrecht: Synthese Library
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Cartledge, Paul. 1984. "A New Lease on Life for Lichas, Son of Arkesilas?"
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Cogan, Marc. 1981. The Human Thing: The Speeches and Principles of Thllcydides' History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Connor, W. Robert. 1984. Thucydides. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
de Romilly, J. 1976. "A1cibiade et la melange entre jeune et vieux: Politique et
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Political Theory 14:359-90.
Farrar, Cynthia. 1988. The Origins of Democratic Thinking: The Invention of
Politics in Classical Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Femia, Joseph v. 1981. Gramsci's Political Thought: Hegemony, Consciousness, and the Revolutionary Process. Oxford: Oxford Universiry Press.
Finley, John. 1941. Thucydides. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Flory, S. 1988. "Thucydides' Hypotheses about the Peloponnesian War." TAPA
II:43-5 6.
Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Writings and Other Interviews 1972-1977- Edited by Colin Gordon and translated by Colin Gordon,
Leo Marshal, John Mepham, and Kate Soper. New York: Pantheon.
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Lavency, M. 1964. Aspects de la logographie judiciaire attique. Louvain: Louvain Nauwelaerts.
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Loraux, Nicole. 1986. The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the
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Private Lives and Public Enemies: Freedom of Thougiji~·.~.:..-::
in Classical Athens
, '.
.'.... , .. on
: :. .
•• "
... '~~~:
............-........ !:'\~.
.~~ ..,~, ~
Personal freedom-"to live as you wish" (zen hos boultia;:;Sj~~~
say what you wish". (parrhesiazesthai)-is cited by many ~n¢ientso\.lr~~::
as an outstanding quality of the Athenian democracy. At-a moment 11£...
crisis outside Syracuse in 413, Thucydides' Nikias sought'tOencourage-:-"
his soldiers by reminding them that their country was "the ;-;sdrce bf.all .
states" (eleutherotate) and that "all who lived there had the liberty. to ljve
their own lives in their own way" (7.69.2., trans. Warner). Bo~ Plato~.
the Old Oligarch complain that in Athens even animals or slaves d9just ._.:'
as they please.! Most famously of all, in the Funeral Oration Thucydides'
Perikles remarks that "just as our political life is free and open, our:
day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not.get into·a~state. with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own~way, 'nor dO '",
we give him the kind of black looks which, though they dC? ng relll harm,,::::.
still do hurt people's feelings. We are free andtolerant in oW: priyate liv.c;!i::·,~
but in public affairs we keep to the law" (2..37.3, trans. Warner)•.Th~i:~ .
perhaps as a consequence of the history of fifth-century Athens;:~rsonal~
freedom has come to be associated with the democratic fora(Rfi~m:~ .
ment. 2
As traditionally conceived, however, there are at least two outstand-, .~
ing categories of exceptions to this principle of personal f~4.9m;.gi!t{Qi~,
those citizens who took part in city government, and second in the area. of .
the freedom of thought, especially in connection with promiIienfintellectuals and in religious matters. Among many examples in ~first of ~ese
categories were the official state examinations into the personal ~onduct
of Athenians who were selected to hold public office. These examinations
concerned issues such as whether they treated their parents badly. Candi-